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Digital Transformation for Student Engagement and Community Building

What we define and deliver as student engagement must be transformed.

The global pandemic of COVID-19 has disrupted all industries. It has come in waves, with each passing day mandating different closures, maximum gathering numbers, and unemployment rates rising. Higher education began responding with shifting to online and remote learning, options for or requirements of working from home, and campuses/residence halls completely closing and/or plans to maintain some student accommodations.

Emotions and anxieties are high. Students are disappointed. Confused. Angry. Graduations canceled. All while the grocery store is running out of toilet paper. 

Faculty and staff are being pressed to the edge too. This is a test of campus leadership. While I will next be working on a post that calls for Digital Leadership in Higher Education, I’m imploring you in this piece to begin setting the stage for a significant wave of disruption and transformation: Digital Engagement and Community Building. 

What higher education must come to terms with is this: we can not replicate what was once in one format. It will not be business as usual. We must create (and co-create) what is to come. 

I repeat: we must create, not replicate. We must transform. 

It’s going to be messy, but we’ll grow as professionals and an industry, as a result—and hopefully after all this remote work and “social distancing” we’ll come out of our COVID-19 cocoons as beautiful, creative and collaborative community building butterflies. 

In this post, I’ll be sharing how in education, digital communities must be activated to accomplish student engagement – and how these communities can’t be built from silos. Institutions need to share their work and co-create across the industry. 

To aid in this, I am offering a series of webinars and workshops that take this post into action and practice for higher education professionals. Resources will be shared widely. The first on was on Wednesday, April 1st, 11:00 AM PT / 3:00 PM ET. Click below to catch the replay!

Language Matters

As we attempt to quickly reconsider learning environments, student services, and programming – it has been interesting the words chosen to describe it. 

I took a quick poll on Twitter, based on what I was seeing in the realm of student affairs language such as “virtual”, “online”, “digital”, “remote”, “distance”, “e-student affairs”, and so on. 

Note that I asked in the Twitter poll, what language feels the most meaningful?

A few comments came in which included:

  • “I think I like digital engagement, but know our students would prefer digital connection. Engagement is too much of a buzz word for some.”
  • “Virtual – words matter. Virtual because it can never replace actual face to face interaction. Very close to it – but never quite the same.”
  • “To me, virtual is more interactive than digital!”
  • “What’s challenging for me is what we centre or prioritize by the order of our words. Digital or virtual sometimes implies a particular place vs. a certain practice. Technology-enhanced or enabled may help this by re-centering our goals for connection.”
  • “My institution is referring to this time as “Remote Education””
  • “We’ve been using Online or Virtual to illustrate the distance. My problem with digital is that captured what we’re doing before social distancing.”

What do you think? Add to the thread here.

Here’s the thing: we don’t have to call it the same thing. But we do need to have a clear purpose and philosophy behind it. We need to be intentional, and reflect on the interpretation, and potential impact, of the language we choose. You may not realize that your bias, beliefs and/or current skills in technology could be fueling—or hindering—your word choice and/or strategies. 

On the minds of campus senior leadership

Campus leadership that I reached out to are also discerning language at this time. 

Russell Lowery, President of Amarillo College, shared with me:

I am having real difficulty finding the right language. For our students “online” and “virtual” create stress because they don’t have the technology for it or because they don’t think they can do it or they don’t like it. We are using “tech supported learning” and a “tech supported environment.” I’m not sold on it either because it’s semantics on some level but we are trying to focus on the activity – learning, presenting, talking, meeting – rather than the medium in which those activities happen.

Tim Miller, Vice President for Student Affairs as James Madison University called upon existing scholarship to refine his word choice:

As George Kuh described in “The Other Curriculum” (Journal of Higher Education, 1995), the interactions and activities that occur outside the classroom “contributes to valued outcomes of college” and are “positively related to persistence and satisfaction.” We have the responsibility to continue these interactions and relationships with our students even if they aren’t in front of us or on our campuses. Is this virtual, online, on the phone, remote?  I am not sure it’s name but when it comes down to it this is about quality of interaction, not the medium. Let’s not belittle the work we do by defining it by the fact that it is done through technology. Our responsibility is to connect and partner with our students in quality ways, no matter the medium and that’s what we need to do now and in the future. [emphasis added]

Mordecai I. Brownlee, Vice President for Student Success at St. Philip’s College wrote to me, “I lean to the term “online engagement.” However, I also believe that “remote student engagement” is a term that may be more universal for faculty and staff. Above all, the goal should be to send a message to faculty/staff that our students need us, no matter the mode of delivery.

Terisa Riley, Chancellor at University of Arkansas – Fort Smith focused on the outcome and practicality, saying

“I’m very pragmatic and prefer language that associates real life connections and communication using technology. Online is a platform, a method, which resonates more with me.” 

Joe Sabado, Associate Chief Information Officer of the University of California Santa Barbara Student Affairs and Executive Director of SIS&T, further contextualizes the nature of this work, pointing out, “We’ve had tech tools, online tools for decades. The question now is how do we use them? That should have always driven the use of tools anyway. Pedagogy before technology.”

Are we really going virtual? 

One word, in particular, gave me pause, and also in my heart, felt problematic. Virtual. While a small percentage of voices in higher education are active on Twitter, and an even smaller percentage took the poll – the results pressed me to write this very post. 

By definition, virtual is,almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.” In computing it’s defined as, “not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so” and “carried out, accessed, or stored by means of a computer, especially over a network.” 

In physics virtual is defined as, “denoting particles or interactions with extremely short lifetimes and (owing to the uncertainty principle) indefinitely great energies, postulated as intermediates in some processes.”

Another definition by stated, “Although virtual can be used to describe anything that exists in effect, but not in fact, it is often used to describe things created in a computer or online world.”

When you use virtual – are you really saying synchronous, like in a learning environment online – which happens for participants at the same time? Vs asynchronous which is not. Is it realistic that all our student services are happening at the same time, maybe – but definitely not live and definitely not for all our students. 

To be sure I wasn’t just recovering from my latest anxiety from reading the news, or biased from seven years researching and writing about digital engagement and leadership, I reached out to numerous colleagues to see what they thought about the terms/application of virtual student engagement, virtual engagement, etc. I hope their responses will give you perspective and purpose as you transform student engagement on your campus.

Less than. 

One theme that I quickly heard was how virtual comes from a “less than” mentality. These quotes in particular highlighted how the term “virtual” seemed to diminish the quality or impact of the work we do:

“Virtual” is code for doubts about value, and those doubts too often bleed into the interaction. No one referred to telegrams or telephone calls as virtual. It seems to carry a connotation of diminishment or lack of substance. I use either the terms “digital” or computer-mediated.” There is nothing “virtual” about these interactions for our students.” -George McClellan, Associate Professor of Higher Education at The University of Mississippi – Ole Miss

Martha Compton, Dean of Students at Concordia University – Texas,

“Virtual feels “less than” to me… not real, or a poor substitute. Digital is recognizing it’s something different, not an online replica of something else.”

“Virtual is using an old lexicon to describe something completely foreign.” Ed Cabellon, higher education administrator, faculty member, and consultant

Virtual: A Term with Strings Attached

The concept of something completely foreign was brought up by others – who addressed the existing assumptions of virtual reality. 

Jeremiah Baumann, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at the University of Michigan and the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community chair addressed how virtual comes with strings and stigma attached:

Virtual has had a bit of shift of use in our society especially with VR moving away from just gaming (false worlds). Virtually really just meant computer-assisted back in the 80s. But it has a stigma of being “almost real but not” – so, therefore, virtual student engagement seems like it’s almost real but not, downplaying it as an acceptable form.

Similarly, Marci Walton, Associate Director of Residence Life at Xavier University called out the pre-existing associations that connect virtual interaction to gaming—an intentionally “unreal” space: “Virtual engagement makes me think of virtual reality platforms or a game like The Sims: They simulate reality, but in the end, are not real. During this unprecedented time in higher education, we are engaging students in very real, very human ways. It just happens to be in digital or online formats.”

Is it real? 

We want these connections, services, and practices to have a real impact – right? 

Brian Bourke, Associate Professor at Murray State University challenged the field with the following crucial question: “Have we equated virtual to synthetic, e.g. virtual reality? Right now we need a language that emphasizes connection through digital means, and I don’t think connection when I see or hear virtual. If it’s not in-person, then it’s not real.”

The doubts about real vs in-person vs online were explained by Chris Conzen, Executive Director at Hudson Community College, as “[…] a little ‘doubting Thomas’ syndrome at play for some. They can’t believe something is real unless they can actually touch it, see it, etc.” 

Conzen replied to the original Twitter poll with this response: 

I don’t like virtual, because it insinuates that the engagement is not “real”. Same reason I don’t like the idea of saying when you finally meet someone in the same physical space that this “in real life”. The interactions and relationships are just as real. 

Online is Real Life

This crisis is exposing a number of disconnects and disagreements, Including this one: Online is real life. 

Not everyone reading will believe that. Ascribe to it. Several may comment or tweet at me that it is not IRL (in real life). 

I am not here to “should” you. I’m here to share. And maybe to nudge. This moment in time is a reality check. 

Liz Gross, CEO and Founder of Campus Sonar has been stating for years in keynotes, blogs, and workshops how online interaction is real interaction. Further “online is not an alternate reality. It’s a reflection of reality.”  A special note: Liz and I met on Twitter and did not meet for years, yet I call her one of my closest friends. Real Life.

Tweet it with me, “Online is Real Life”

Learning from Digital Communication and Marketing Pros

In student engagement, we have a great deal to gain from our colleagues in higher ed digital communications and marketing. They have years and years of experience using digital communication platforms to engage and build community. Whenever I have the opportunity to serve as a keynote or workshop facilitator to this group, I quickly proclaim myself as their biggest fan. They are magicians; we need to pick up on some of their craft.

For example, this quote from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Tyler Thomas sounds right at home with the work we do. “When I think about my work in Higher Ed Social Media,” said this senior director of integrated content, “I think of it as community building and community engagement in a digital space. My main goal is to build community with our audiences digitally. I talk a little about this here. I am intentional in the use of the word “digital.” The content we create and the stories we tell are all created for digital consumption and engagement.” 

Andrew Cassel is the social media manager at Middlebury College (VT) and has also observed the word virtual attempting to be applied in areas such as enrollment/admissions. In the digital community #HigherEdSocial, Andrew guided other higher ed social media pros on discerning with our colleagues on what we really mean by virtual, posting: 

“Today when you’re talking to them (campus colleagues) ask: what are you really wanting to replicate with this thing you’re calling a Virtual Preview Day? More than likely they’ll start to share concepts like Community, Connection, Excitement. It’s more than just “if we get them on campus they’ll commit”. It’s the feeling you get meeting a new friend and being suddenly curious about their amazing ideas and insightful world view. The feeling that you want to spend more time with that person. The feeling that being around that person makes you a better you. Those feelings are more difficult to create using online tools. But not impossible. You’re clever, you’ll find ways. It starts with moving past this term “virtual.”

Finally, I want to share a response from Rachel Putman, Associate Director Of Strategic Communications at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. It is poetically written and stopped me in my tracks – even challenging my previous definitions:

Writers talk a lot about le mot juste, using just the right word. Using exactly the right beautiful words can make literature blossom, and in the same way using exactly the right words can make complex communications clear. 

Virtual implies a sensation not based in reality. There are virtual reality games, there’s virtual instruction with simulations for architects and engineers, and there’s virtual training on complex healthcare challenges that never endanger the lives of patients. (I once performed virtual surgery using a DaVinci surgical robot…and learned I definitely chose the right career path.) There are areas where “virtual” is exactly what we need because reality isn’t the right place to experiment. 

But collaboration, connection and community building? These values are very real, and our interactions with each other (even in isolation) can be physical, too. We pound the keys when we’re angry. We pace on difficult phone calls. We ‘fast-tap’ to send strings of hearts to show our love on a livestream.

For me, the difference between digital and virtual is about clarity. The clarity that while you might be operating on a virtual -non-real- patient, your community is here, right at your fingertips. 

The shock our society feels right now: self-isolation, sickness, plunging stock markets, and telling our students graduation is canceled. It’s real. For now, we also make peace with all of that. Because the reality is our programs and service delivery will look different, now and in the future. 

In this reality, we must allow ourselves to be transformed. But for those unsure of how that transformation can or should take place, there is hope and help to be found.

Student Engagement meets Digital Transformation

One existing framework not yet mentioned is digital transformation, championed by organizations such as EDUCAUSE. This framework and call to action is defined as, 

“In the context of sweeping social, economic, technological, and demographic changes, digital transformation (Dx) is a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution’s operations, strategic directions, and value proposition.”

In another EDUCAUSE article, the organization goes on to share that digital transformation “means transforming an organization’s core business to better meet customer needs by leveraging technology and data.” 

Some ideas for Dx highlighted by EDUCAUSE include:

  • Recruiting students digitally, using social media and text messaging as part of a data-driven decision process;
  • Allowing students to register via their mobile phones on scalable cloud-based student information systems;
  • Providing a variety of online learning options so students have enough courses to choose from at key points in their academic career;
  • Working with faculty and programs to convert courses to flipped and blended models;
  • Using technology to monitor student progress and success metrics and execute intervention protocols; and
  • Partnering with industry to provide digital badges and certificates to enhance career opportunities.

This disruption of the coronavirus will require a digital transformation in higher education. 

Including the work I do. But first, let me share what I have been educating and advocating for since 2014. I hope it will give you a framework, language, or at least a philosophy to refer to. 

What is Digital Engagement?

In these quickly changing times, we do not need to waste time with a heated debate or committee meetings on what to call things. Virtual, online, digital – It’s more important to do the good work and let the language organically follow. 

In my forthcoming book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education: Purposeful Social Media in a Connected World (July 2020), I write to campus leaders and the importance of infusing a digital engagement lens, which I explain as

Digital Engagement is built around relationships and community building. This connection is a result of tapping into the relationship equation. Marketing might be part of this equation, but it’s not at the center. Relationships are.”

Even when applied beyond  campus leaders’ online presence, such as divisions, departments, programs – digital engagement encourages alignment and purpose:

“Digital engagement should not be an afterthought, add-on, or less-than strategy. It’s a valuable tool for leadership, and thankfully no unattainable superhero skills are involved. Your superpower is discernment and action with an aligned and authentic purpose-driven approach.”

Your platforms (tools, pages, software, etc) can be powerful when you apply a philosophy. 

This is why Digital engagement is grounded in the following core tenets:

  • Engage Authentically.
  • Build Community.
  • Foster Belonging.

People, purpose, then platforms. 

When I say platforms, it encompasses tech tools, the method, modality, and delivery. Yes, social media, but also learning management systems like Canvas, video conferencing tools like Zoom or FaceTime, etc.

Digital Engagement is Student Engagement. But the framework goes far beyond current and future students.  Digital engagement is Alumni Engagement. It’s Community Engagement. It’s Parent & Family Engagement. The list goes on.

Don’t start with the tool or product – start with your people. 

  • People: Who are you trying to connect with? What do they need, immediately – first in the short term, and then in the future?
  • Purpose: What are your program/initiative goals and outcomes? 
  • Platform: What tools are available that fit the people you want to engage AND your purpose? 

What do students really need right now?

Take what research/scholarship we know about student engagement and community building into online spaces. We can go old school for some perspective; think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Arguably outdated (1943), it provides at least one example of human needs in stages from most crucial to less or least crucial: physiological (food, shelter, sleep), safety (health, security, money), belonging and love (friendships, family, intimacy), esteem (status, acceptance, respect), self-actualization (values, helping others, fulfillment), and self-transcendence (spirituality). 

If students don’t have life-sustaining resources or are not safe, they may not show up to your livestream of an open mic night. I love what Virginia Tech is doing, rolling out a “Well-Being” website pulls together wellness resources for resiliency, teletherapy, fitness training, counseling, faith, and much more.

But following along the hierarchy, just above those base needs is belonging. And this is where student engagement professionals, as well as those in digital marketing and communications, can collaborate and co-create student engagement online. 

It may also nudge us back to our debates about language.

Connection at the Core

What do we really want to have happened as a result of our new student engagement efforts? Have you asked your students? 

I asked Sarah Aguilar, senior at Illinois State University, what she thought. Her answer reflects what our work frequently aspires to do, and what we should keep top of mind as our efforts develop:

“I like digital connection because that seems a bit more personal. With so much transition from a lot of in-person interaction to all online I know that students have more appreciation for individualized attention.”

If you haven’t been tapped into the pulse of your students – stop reading this blog immediately.

Transforming Digital Engagement

I began this post by challenging student engagement as we knew it to transform. We can not just take what we used to do or know, replicate it and repeat. We must create it. We must co-create. And quickly. 

So, I too am taking this call to heart. I am reflecting on how I’ve defined and created curriculum and services on what I refer to as digital engagement. From the profound feedback I have received, even within just 48 hours, I am being transformed. 

Since starting this work in 2014 I have been prioritizing language within digital/online/social media including connection, community, authenticity, belonging, leadership, purpose and even a term I use called heartware.

In Digital Leadership in Higher Education, I define heartware as, “a community-centered philosophy, built from humanizing the use of any given tech tool in order to form stronger connections.” 

A heartware approach to digital leadership recognizes every like, comment, and new follower as a real person seeking community and belonging (Ahlquist, 2019).

Whatever you call connecting and engaging online, do it with heart, and—dare I say—soul.  

There’s a community for you

Are you interested in unpacking and co-creating student engagement and community building? My work straddles between student affairs and marketing/communications, and I believe we need collaboration and conversations between these two areas of campus more than ever. So, I created the Facebook group: Digital Student Engagement & Community Building. 

I created this space to have us all consider: 

  • What will be your campus digital living room or quad?
  • Beyond the classroom, where will our students find each other to laugh, lead, and just be? 
  • How can student engagement professionals and social media professionals collaborate to create vibrant communities that, at least for now, live online? 

This sandbox space won’t give you the right or wrong language or action. It’s a place to explore, like this post in the group from Matthew Brinton, Director of Development at the University of Texas at Tyler, who reflected:

Part of me wonders why we even need to make a distinction. Higher education professionals engage students in a variety of ways under the “student engagement” umbrella. Campus events, service projects, living-learning communities, clubs and organizations, fraternity and sorority life, book clubs, movie nights, etc. Couldn’t we easily add digital things like zoom hangouts, social media chats, discussion boards, etc under the same umbrella without different language? In a way this could help bring some of these digital student engagement tools that many of us are passionate about into the mainstream programming when this passes and we move operations back on campus. These could be longer term solutions that can help campuses better engage with distance learners across the board, not just now when we’re all at a distance. It has always felt like the digital aspects of learning and student engagement have had to be on the outside looking in of “traditional” programming and instruction, now that it is all we have, it’s time to shine. I’d love to hear with others think.

In response, Jodie Davis, Associate Director- Student Engagement at the University of Newcastle, wrote

“I have been thinking along the same lines Matthew. Necessity is the mother of invention and this crisis provides us with a push to be bold and creative, to test new ideas, and come up with some student engagement initiatives that I have no doubt will become part of our ‘regular programming’ when life returns to normal.”

Indeed, what we do now will become part of student engagement. This is why the language matters, and matters as much as the immediacy of simply doing good work and taking care of our students and each other.

The philosophy and programs will impact us, and our students for years to come. 

Digital Engagement Support

While these are unprecedented times, what will never change is my calling to be a resource and of service. So, I’ve rounded up a whole lot of examples, tips, podcasts, and inspiration. You may not be in the headspace to get to these now; that’s completely okay. Be easy on yourselves. With that said, bookmark this post and/or resources that will come in handy right when you need them.

Part two of this post will go into platforms and possibilities to support your digital engagement and community-building efforts. I’ll be sure to link it here once it’s live. 

This post will kick off a series of education and support, from future blog posts, podcasts, webinars and workshops. Check out the recording to the first webinar, Digita Transformation for Student Engagement & Community Building.

WEBINAR: Digital Transformation for Student Engagement and Community Building

This webinar will present a framework of digital student engagement, as well as available tools, so you can quickly connect and build community. This framework is also applicable to alumni, parent, family, employee, and community engagement.

Attendees will learn the most popular digital engagement platforms (nearly all which are free), and where we already know specific audiences are engaging online. This program will inspire you to go forward building digital communities for your campus with clarity and confidence!

Dr. Josie Goes Digital

All of my programs and services are transforming to engage, connect and educate online. I offer speaking (Students + Higher Ed Pros), consulting and executive coaching, which will be delivered through a variety of interactive and on-demand methods. Click below to quickly get in touch and we’ll get planning.

To stay updated on all resources and shifts of services – make sure you are subscribed to my newsletter and of course, find me on all the socials: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

Be well,


Digital Engagement and Community Building Resources

Examples of Student Engagement Going Digital

Crowdsourced Resources

Related Blogs from

Josie and The Podcast Related Episodes

Blog Posts

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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